March 8 found us in Santarem, an important river town about halfway between Belem and Manaus. It is at the confluence of the Amazon and Tapajos rivers, the latter named after the indigenous tribe that occupied this territory before the Europeans arrived (Francisco Orellana raided one of their corn plantations during his trip down the river in 1542). Founded by Portuguese Jesuits in 1661, Santarem now has a population of around 300,000. After the US Civil War a group of Confederates moved to Santarem; although some descendants still live here, most of the original expats eventually moved back to the United States.
When we visited here in 2012 we took the ship’s shuttle into town and walked around.
So this time we joined an excursion into the rainforest on the Tapajos River. Our guide was Gil Serique, a first class guide and raconteur who has lived his entire life in this area. His grandfather was a Sephardic Jew who immigrated here from Morocco in the 1850’s, became friends with the Confederate expats who lived by his Jewish village of Boim on the Tapajos, and later helped Henry Wickham spirit rubber tree seeds to England where they were used to create the rubber industry in Asia. Touring with Gil was a real treat.
We met Gil and his riverboat at the dock and sailed out toward the main part of Santarem.
Next to the port is a giant Cargill soybean processing and storage plant. The struts in the picture above are holding up a conveyor system for transporting the product to ships and barges in the river. The plant holds some 114,000 tons of soybeans. According to environmentalists this accessible plant has encouraged a great deal of clearing of rainforest in this region to plant soybeans. It has been very controversial ever since it was begun in the late 1990’s, and you can see why people who live here might find it a burden and an eyesore.
As we sailed down the Santarem waterfront we came to a sort of pavilion on stilts over the water. This seems to be a place for tourists to see the Amazon’s famous pink dolphins. Also called “boto,” these are the largest freshwater dolphins in the world, growing up to about 8 feet and 400 pounds during their 30 year lifespan. The dolphins start out gray but get pinker as they grow older because their skin becomes thinner; they can sometimes turn a very bright pink when excited, blushing like humans. The last time we visited the Amazon we were taken to a place that “always” has pink dolphins, but not when we were there. We decided that pink dolphins were like pink elephants – much more likely to be seen when you are inebriated. But we were proven wrong at this site, where pieces of fish were dangled on ropes to induce the dolphins to jump into full sight. They look friendly, with big smiles, but actually are carnivorous (ie. not friendly if you happen to be a fish).
We continued sailing down the riverfront before heading out into the rain forest. We passed a large fish sculpture, a building with large wall art of local birds and some dockside buildings and riverboats. More notably we saw the cathedral, built in 1761 and painted blue, which has a large vendor’s market in front of it. At one point we passed a building and Gil exclaimed “That is where I was conceived.” A little more information than we had expected.
We left Santarem and sailed up the Tapajos River, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon. Some 1200 miles long (including its biggest tributary) it represents about 6% of the water in the entire Amazon basin. We had understood that the excursion would be largely on the Tapajos, but it is between 4 and 9 miles wide as it approaches Santarem and you will see from the pictures that we spent most of our time exploring much smaller waterways, the names of which we do not know.
Early in the cruise we saw some horses drinking in the river, several kinds of birds, including black-collared hawks and egrets, along with multiple colorful flowers. A good bit of the river was marshy, which actually made it more picturesque. People do live out here, but not many it seems.
We reached a place where two rivers met and Gil took a small motorboat to retrieve a sloth from a tree up one of the rivers. There was a girl travelling with her father and they went with Gil. They returned with a baby sloth, which everybody spent time admiring while first Gil then the girl held it. Afterward they took the sloth back where they found it and, according to Gil, placed back in exactly its original location on a tree.
We were divided into two groups, each of which went out in small launches to explore narrower waterways where we could see more flora and fauna. Gil was the guide in our boat as we glided among trees and marsh. Among other things we saw a huge termite nest and some large globe shaped bird nests made of loose twigs. The Amazon rises and falls about 40 feet every year and floods into low lying forest when the water rises. That may be the reason for the trees growing in the water in some of the pictures below.
Among the wildlife we saw from the launch were an iguana and a sloth, both high in the trees, and a lot of birds, including some wattled jacanda, what looks like a limpkin, and a number of egrets, both great and snowy.
Before returning to the riverboat we visited some of the giant water lilies endemic to the Amazon region. We had seen these near Manaus on our last visit, where it was demonstrated to us that the pads were more than 5 feet in diameter and they can grow much bigger than that. They were blooming here, with a few large white flowers. After seeing them we headed back to the riverboat.
While the second group had their launch cruise we spent time on the idle river boat. There was a large display of Amazon fruits on a table and also some to eat (the pineapple was particularly delicious). We were also shown a pod of Brazil nuts. Mostly we sat around talking, eating and watching the scenery.
The second group returned from their launch trip after some adventure (one of the boats broke down) and we started back toward Santarem. Among other things, we saw blue herons, a vulture, a great black hawk and another sloth very high in a tree. There was also a pink dolphin, although he submerged before we could get a picture. At one point Gil brought out a stuffed piranha fish, which looked fierce with very sharp pointy teeth.
When we reached the more open water near Santarem we passed a flock of cormorants and some other birds. Then we sailed over the “meeting of the waters.” This is where the muddy Amazon river meets the clear water of the Tapajos and the two contrasting streams run next to each other for several miles before mixing together into a single river. This is because the rivers flow at different speeds, have different acidity and are different temperatures. It is quite an unusual sight and there is another at Manaus where the Rio Solimoes meets the Rio Negro to form what the Brazilians call the Amazon (Peruvians consider the Solimoes part of the Amazon).
Back at the dock we walked through the vendors’ stalls set up near the ship and along the dock where there were more birds. Then we boarded the ship and prepared for dinner after a full and rewarding day.